Critics targeted secularism twice.

Once was here on The Immanent Frame and around it, in the books, conferences, and classes of scholars from the critical humanities. After September 11, religion was unavoidable, but academics remained allergic. So, a focus on the meta-: How has religion been excluded, managed, or repressed? Or the meta-meta-: How have people in different places and times talked about the distinction between the religious and the secular?—with this conversation itself, on some accounts, constituting secularism.

These critics took the role of psychoanalyst. The problem: a knot around things religious in our collective psyche, where “our” is presumed to be everyone, or more reflectively the Anglophone West, but more realistically an intellectual elite in North America. (The symptom: 9/11.) The critic names the repression of the religious and so loosens the knot, making the symptom comprehensible. The secularism of Western liberalism gives rise to the Islamic revival—and the slogan “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Religion, for these critics, remains at a safe, clinical distance. It does not make demands on them, does not compel them to act this way or that, to feel or think this way or that. The aim, essentially, is a better secularism, a healthy secularism (perhaps “secularity”). This would be a secularism with room for wonder, beauty, mystery, curiosity, enchantment, connection, critique, difference, justice, and love. (These interests and affects are suspiciously aligned with liberal Protestantism.)

The odd thing is that this attack on secularism had happened before, and on a much grander scale. In 1984 the Canadian-American Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus published The Naked Public Square and catalyzed a robust public conversation about the dangers of secularism. This conversation included participants from the academy, from religious institutions, and from the world of politics. Neuhaus would eventually convert to Roman Catholicism, and this first wave of secularism’s critics was led by Catholics together with evangelicals and some Jews. (Catholics and evangelicals had already been criticizing secularism in sectarian circles for quite some time.) Stanley Hauerwas, later named by Time America’s best theologian, would bring a distinct but related set of worries about secularism into mainstream theological education with his coauthored Resident Aliens in 1989, and John Milbank would add theoretical sophistication and breadth to these arguments in his 1990 tome Theology and Social Theory. In US electoral politics, evangelicals would align themselves with Republicans to advance a “moral” agenda positioned against a supposed secularist status quo.

This first generation of secularism’s critics, like the second, believed that the exclusion or management of religion in public was unhealthy for political life. Both named liberalism as the culprit. Where the smartest work of the second generation, by Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and their progeny, focused on secularism abroad, especially with respect to Islam, first-generation critics focused on secularism in North America, especially with respect to Christianity. Where the second generation was highly allergic to Christianity, the first generation was highly allergic to Islam.

For secularism’s first critics, there was a straightforward answer to the question of what comes after secularism’s critique: acceptance rather than repression of the already Judeo-Christian character of North America. Because this is about us, for the first generation of critics, and not them, as it would be for the second generation, such acceptance means recognizing the normativity of religious tradition. It means adjusting what one does, thinks, and feels based on the structures of authority internal to that tradition. Moreover, it means a commitment to tradition irreducible to secular terms. Against liberal Protestant conventions, the content of Judaism or Christianity was taken as incommensurable with social scientific or humanistic idioms—indeed, it was to take priority over them.

This first set of secularism’s critics did not go away, but the public spotlight turned elsewhere. The magazine Neuhaus founded, First Things, continues to publish, and its new editor, R. R. Reno, recently published Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, continuing the antisecularist attack. Catholic thought leaders such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Princeton politics professor Robert George still worry about secularism’s power. But the force and traction of the critique are now diminished, given the increasingly diverse political inclinations of young evangelicals and the openness to spirituality of many North Americans who have no patience for institutionalized religion.

When Neuhaus thematized North American secularism for the general public in the 1980s, it was in reality an amorphous set of shared values and practices among coastal elites. Once it was named, and imagined secularists became the target of noncoastal, non-elite resentment, one reaction was to embrace the label. As Leigh Schmidt and others have documented, there has long been a North American tradition of atheists and freethinkers outside of elite circles, part of the robust cast of religious eccentrics that make religion on this continent so vibrant and colorful. Now, thanks to Neuhaus and his colleagues, they had a new name for themselves. They embraced the identity of the secularist, with some calling themselves secular humanists while others preferred older labels like skeptics, humanists, freethinkers, or just plain atheists. The Council for Secular Humanism was formed in 1980, and in 1991 it was folded into the Center for Inquiry under the leadership of philosophy professor and public intellectual Paul Kurtz.

Religion professor Joseph Blankholm has rightly pointed out that there is surprisingly little reflection on how self-identified secularists relate to second-generation critics of secularism, but an equally pressing question concerns the relationship between first- and second-generation critics of secularism. Secularism became a thing twice, once to the general public in North America and once to a few hundred critical humanities scholars.1 The former moment shifted real identities, pushing some public intellectuals toward institutional religion and some free-floating freethinkers toward institutional secularism. The second moment operates in the time and space of academic anxieties, fads, and funding streams, like deconstruction, affect theory, animal studies, and object-oriented ontology. These are useful tools for the critic, drawing her interest because of contingent features of the academic landscape, but they never deeply challenge the material basis of that landscape. The habitus of the scholar continues to be that of the North American bourgeoisie.

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I was once a secular humanist. There was a secular humanist club at my college, and on activity day my freshman year I signed up. I do not remember what the club did, but it was not much. I thought we should start a magazine, and so did someone from the Cornell secular humanist club. Somehow we found resources to start it, and we portentously named it CommonSense: An Intercollegiate Journal of Humanism and Freethought. (I had voted for Zarathustra.) Soon, we were distributing it to secular humanist clubs at two dozen campuses, who distributed it for free to the student bodies on their campuses. Then, I found myself an intern at the Council for Secular Humanism. Then, I found myself the youth coordinator of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the London-based umbrella organization for secular humanist groups all over the world. I traveled around North America, Europe, and South Asia speaking to secularists of all stripes, putting together conferences, representing humanism in the media, and building organizational capacity.

After those years, I did not wake up one day and ask, Is this all there is? I was not a particularly religious secular humanist: I never owned a conversion narrative. I started graduate school and my attention gradually turned elsewhere. There was office politics. Every year or two up through the present I connect with the secular humanist world again a little bit, sometimes at my initiative, sometimes when it reaches out to me.

Of course it would be delusional for me to imagine that my academic trajectory toward the Asadian, humanistic critique of secularism was unrelated to my own secular humanist past—just as it is delusional for so many religious studies scholars to pretend that their own past religious selves are unrelated to their current vocation as “secular scholars of religion.” Did I want to use the tools of the academy to find a better, smarter, more just, and more loving secularism? Was I one of those lonely North American religious eccentrics, uncomfortable with an identity defined in the negative, by Neuhaus and colleagues, looking for a way to be a spiritual entrepreneur in a crowded religious marketplace?

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Many from the second generation of secularism’s critics, when they encounter the first generation, are put off by what seems to be the reactionary politics—on reproductive justice, gay rights, the economy, or militarism. Second-generation critics take themselves to be concerned with social justice, perhaps more than anything else. The odd thing is: the critique of secularism in its first instance was begun by antiwar, racial justice activists. Before he was famed for denouncing secularism, Neuhaus was pastoring in predominantly black churches in Detroit, Chicago, and Brooklyn, organizing his parishioners and fellow clergy to support the civil rights movement and to oppose the Vietnam War. The problem, Neuhaus and some of his contemporaries came to believe, was that secularism was inhibiting the struggle for justice. The challenging, indeed revolutionary, theological appeal of Martin Luther King Jr. was being heard by secular elites as limp liberalism. Frustrated by this, black radicals pushed left of King, embracing ungrounded secular radicalism that overlooked the already radical ideas and practice of the Christian civil rights movement leaders. Similarly, anti–Vietnam War activists frustrated with the failure of moral appeals pushed harder left into secularist territory that was increasingly sectarian and ineffective.

In 1975 a group of leading academic and ecclesial theologians named secularism as a problem infecting the world and the Christian church. Peter Berger, Avery Dulles, Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, Alexander Schmemann, and more than a dozen others, including Neuhaus, proclaimed in the Hartford Appeal that “an apparent loss of a sense of the transcendent is undermining the Church’s ability to address with clarity and courage the urgent tasks to which God calls it in the world.” They listed thirteen beliefs common among liberal Christians that they said must be rejected in favor of the autonomy and authority of the theological. Among these beliefs: that the world sets the agenda for the church. For the Appeal’s signatories, the problem was not an excessive concern with social problems. Rather, it was accepting the terms in which social problems were framed. If the world is fallen, thoroughly contaminated by ideology, the ideas of the wealthy and powerful distorting how we see the world and its problems, the only way social justice will be achieved is by loosening the hold that the world has on us. From this position, “The Church must denounce oppressors, help liberate the oppressed, and seek to heal human misery.”

Second-generation critics of secularism have ostensibly been concerned with social justice, but it is only relatively recently that an explicit concern with social justice has begun to enter into the conversation. Critics are beginning to attend to the ways that the ideology of secularism, as a mode of managing religion, perfectly complements the management of race, gender, sexuality, and colonial possessions. Stories are now being told about how this nexus of ideologies fits comfortably with neoliberalism—or is birthed from neoliberalism. On such accounts, an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, or militarism cannot be achieved without the critique of secularism, given how intimately linked these ideologies are. In other words, second-generation critics of secularism are moving toward the place where first-generation critics began (in which case, do their starting points matter?).

Perhaps this is why I moved from organized secularism toward its second-generation critics—without finding myself at home in either camp. If I were white, if racial justice were a mere abstraction, the proclaimed opposition to racism of either camp may have felt sufficient. As it is, I can only hope that this world, so contaminated at every level, in every way, by the distortions of anti-blackness, is not all there is.

No Heaven | Image via Flickr user Tom Verre

  1. Of course this is a simplification: secularism was a concern for opponents of Communism, for Catholic traditionalists, for evangelical polemicists, and for various others, at different places and at different times. The Neuhaus moment is significant because of the attention it received simultaneously from intellectual elites and a broader public.